Author's Note: Written for Karen. As per the usual disclaimer, if you recognize it from the show, either one, I don't own it!
Home 0, Away 1
"Would someone kindly explain why the ATF powers that be decided our attendance at this…this…torture session was a necessity?"
Five men laughed while their leader rolled his eyes. "Ezra, it's just a training session."
"No, Chris," Ezra disagreed, pushing his way out of the hotel's large meeting room. "It is not just a training session. It is boredom incarnate wrapped in the packaging of desperation. Every single thing we have heard thus far has been simple common sense given out by instructors who are in dire need of evidence to prove their importance to the federal law enforcement community."
Josiah's voice rumbled from the rear of the group. "Come now, brother, it wasn't so bad today."
"Then you assuredly attended a more profitable session than I," Ezra retorted. "I found myself entrapped with a dozen other undercover agents listening to a fellow drone on about the importance and necessity of compartmentalizing our roles to prevent ourselves from overreacting in a delicate situation. If this is the type of instruction they believe we need as experienced field agents, I shudder to think of what they might be teaching in the academy."
"Ah, Ez," Buck grinned. "You worry too much. It's probably their idea of a refresher course."
"Hmph," Nathan gave a sound of disagreement. "I agree with Ezra."
"That's never a good sign," Vin muttered to Chris before turning to the group's medic. "You have a boring session too?"
Nathan frowned. "Seemed a little too basic. The rookies could have walked out of there thinking the worst they'd ever face was a bullet."
"Could have?" JD asked, interest flooding his expression.
Chris gave a half-sigh, half-chuckle as he looked at Nathan. "This have anything to do with you taking over your session?"
Ezra stopped in his tracks and turned delighted eyes on his friend. "At least one of us managed to completely rout the forces of bureaucracy. How did you manage that?"
Chris rolled his eyes. "It'll wait until we get some food."
"Yes, of course," Ezra agreed. "Well, JD, given that we are currently within the land of your youth, perhaps you might recommend a comfortable establishment?"
JD beamed. "Sure, Ez. You guys want to try Boston's version of an Irish pub?" As murmurs of agreement filled the air, he headed for their rental. "Cool, you'll love McRory's. It's got a great bar, and some pretty good shepherd's pie."
"Then by all means," Josiah assented. "Let's be going."
"Hungry?" Nate teased, dark eyes sparkling in amusement.
"Brother Nate, at this point I'd be tempted by Buck's idea of Stew Surprise."
Vin's nose scrunched up in distaste. "If it's that bad, we better get him fed before he decides to try gnawing on one of us."
The men piled into their rental car, laughter echoing behind them as they drove through the city. Their smiles grew as they reached the location in question. McRory's had a comfortable, neighborhood feel instead of being a dive or some businessman's 'opinion' of what an Irish pub should look like. They walked in, quickly scanning the place. A small knot of people gathered at one end of the bar, but at this time of the afternoon, the place was practically empty. The lunch crowd had left, and it was too early for the working public. With practiced ease they took a table towards the back. After placing their orders, Ezra turned towards Nathan.
"Very well, Mr. Jackson," he said with a touch of anticipation. "Now, do tell how you managed to secure control of your session."
"Yeah, Nate," Buck chimed in. "What happened?"
Nathan smiled, a mix of pleasure and embarrassment spreading across his face. "The guy giving the session kept discussing the dangers of different gunshot wounds; you know, depending on where they hit a body, the type of round, that kind of thing. It got to be redundant, and I was watching these rookies going glassy eyed. So finally I interrupted him with some of the stuff we've been through."
Vin started laughing. "Trying to scare the rookies, Nate?"
"I'm not quite sure we are appropriate subjects for such a discussion," Ezra agreed. "We seem to garner a more diverse and prolific list of injuries than most."
Chris grimaced as he sipped his whisky while Buck could not speak for chortling.
JD shrugged. "I think it's a good idea. They might have the same kind of luck we've got."
"Would that be a blessing or a curse?" Josiah chuckled.
"Blessing," JD, Vin and Ezra replied simultaneously. When the other members of the team stared at them with raised eyebrows, Vin shook his head. "Think about it."
"Yeah," JD chimed in. "With everything we've been through?"
Ezra folded his arms over his chest. "Statistically speaking? Most of us should not be here right now."
"That was kind of my point," Nathan broke in, distracting the others from the somber mood Ezra's remark had engendered. "When I started asking questions, everyone paid more attention. This guy kept getting more and more flustered. He kept trying to bring the focus back to his topic. You'd think the only thing we ever faced was getting shot."
"Shot, hell," Buck snorted. "We've been shot, stabbed, and nearly drowned."
Vin nodded. "There's also getting pushed over cliffs, hypothermia, and rat bites from trailing guys through the sewers."
"We've been caught with animal traps, hit with bats and hammers, and chased by dogs," Josiah commented.
"Blood poisoning, a near hanging, and concussions," added Nathan, shaking his head.
JD tilted his head. "Don't forget getting thrown through windows, out of a plane, and over the side of a boat."
"Of course, there have been the numerous attempts to blow us up, burn us out, and one enterprising fellow who tried to bury us alive," Ezra noted.
Chris rubbed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose. "Should probably also count being run off the road, the stampede of horses, and that damn fool on the train."
"All of that makes my point," Nathan stressed. "Gunshots are only one of the medical issues they might run into, and you can't always depend on a quick ambulance ride."
"So, what'd you do?" Vin asked.
Everyone leaned in as Nathan gave an amused huff. "Once I kept pestering him with all these examples and questions, he finally got fed up enough to challenge me."
"Challenge?" Josiah and Buck chorused, widening their eyes in mock outrage. Chris leaned back, shaking his head.
"Yep," Nathan confirmed, rolling his eyes. "He said that if I knew so much more than him, maybe I should run the session. I think he expected me to back down."
Ezra choked on his drink. After clearing his throat, he chuckled once more. "He obviously did not know to whom he was talking."
Nathan smiled. "Nope. He offered to let me take over, so I shrugged and walked to the front of the group. Five minutes in and I had more attention than he received all afternoon." His grin grew larger as his friends started laughing.
As the men regained control of themselves, Ezra rose from his seat. "I believe I shall seek out another drink." He walked up to the bar and made some pointless conversation with the bartender. He accepted his drink and turned to go back to his friends. As he prepared to move away from the bar, a stranger brushed past him.
Ezra gave a regretful sigh. His hand snapped out and trapped the stranger's wrist. He glanced down at the hand, his wallet glaringly obvious, before turning his gaze towards the face of the pickpocket. Wide blue eyes shimmered with amazement beneath shaggy blond bangs. A ponytail restrained the remainder of her hair, displaying her delicate elfish features. The slender figure before him seemed frozen in surprise. Although he never looked away from her, he could sense the entire bar growing silent.
"Young lady," Ezra admonished quietly. "That does not belong to you."
She blinked, but before she could say anything, one of her companions piped up. "Hey, man, how'd you do that?"
Ezra glanced at the man. "Do what?"
The fellow gestured wildly. "Catch Parker, man! Nobody catches her!"
"There's always a bigger fish," Ezra noted, retrieving his wallet from Parker and letting her go. Calmly he picked up his drink and began walking towards his team.
"That's it?" The question came from Parker's only female companion, a brunette with a light English accent.
"Certainly." Ezra turned to look at her. "She did not, after all, actually manage to abscond with my wallet." He turned a direct look towards Parker. "I would, however, recommend you curb your temptations around both me and my companions. One error in judgment this evening is perfectly acceptable; more than that would be a true mistake."
"That a threat?" The muscle of the group focused on Ezra.
"Merely a warning," Ezra replied, unruffled by the hostility pouring off the man. "I believe Miss Parker understands the situation." His amused voice clearly irritated the fellow, but the oldest member of the group at the bar lifted a hand.
"You seem a bit familiar," the man commented.
Ezra's lips quirked at one side. "I'm sure I do, Mr. Ford." He brushed a bit of lint off the sleeve of his jacket, ignoring the tense stances of the group in front of him. "Strangely enough, insurance investigation does cross paths with law enforcement quite often."
The man shifted, but before he could say anything, Parker chimed in. "You know Nate?"
"We have never been formally introduced," Ezra admitted.
"Are you here for work?" Nate asked, his voice and face carefully blank.
A cold voice came over Ezra's shoulder. "We need to be?"
Ezra smiled in Nate's direction even as he spoke over his shoulder. "I doubt these ladies and gentlemen are involved in anything which would require the involvement of the ATF, Mr. Larabee. If the…whispers of their work are at all accurate, they do not involve themselves in our arena."
"Whispers?" The first man who had spoken piped up. "Hey, we've got whispers!"
"Damn it, Hardison, shut up!" The wary man snarled softly. Hardison made a 'hands-off' gesture and backed up, but his eyes still seemed bright at the idea of 'whispers'.
"Calm down, Eliot," Nate's voice relaxed the tension slightly. "What kind of whispers?"
"Now, really, Mr. Ford," Ezra drawled. "Surely you are not unaware of the ramifications of your actions? Forming a 'Robin Hood' type organization? The clients, jobs, and efforts you take on? Never mind the caliber of your people? Word is spreading rather rapidly through a…less than conventional network about you. I daresay you are far more well-known than you think."
Nate's eyes narrowed and Eliot stirred, taking a step forward. He came to an abrupt halt as his eyes drifted up and over Ezra's left shoulder. Ezra's team had risen, spreading out to cover him if needed. The atmosphere in the room tightened once more.
"Gentlemen, please," Ezra sighed. "All we desire to do is enjoy our meal and our drinks. We are merely in town for a conference. There is no need for things to become hostile."
"I agree," stated Nate. Eliot's shoulders twitched as he kept his gaze firmly on Chris.
"Chris?" Ezra prompted, glancing back to his boss.
Chris leaned back against a column, arms loose and hands free. His stormy gray eyes drifted over the opposite group before narrowing on Eliot. After a moment of silence, he moved his gaze to Nate. "I'll keep my pack to heel provided he stays on his leash."
With a soft growl, Eliot started to move. Before he could even finish shifting his weight, he found himself facing an unexpected weapon. He shot a look at Ezra. Ezra's aim never wavered. "I said there was no need for hostility. I never said I would not resort to such if the situation changed."
"Eliot, enough," Nate snapped, his eyes scanning the men, a few of whom had also drawn weapons.
"Yes, more than enough." The English woman stepped forward, resting her hand lightly on Eliot's arm.
"Sophie," Eliot muttered, glancing around. His eyes shifted between Chris and the other men.
She shook her head. "I'm sure these agents have every intention of keeping conflict to a minimum…?"
As her voice trailed off in question, Ezra tucked his gun away. "Naturally. As I stated, we merely wish to finish our meal and drinks in peace."
"Excellent!" Sophie exclaimed, her bright tone not covering the concern in her face. "Shall we withdraw to our corners now?"
Ezra tilted his head towards Chris and all eyes moved to him. Chris eyed Nate for a long moment, watching as the others by the bar turned to the older man for instructions. Nate gave a nod, and the others, with one exception, shifted away and returned to the bar. Eliot remained at Nate's side, watchful and protective. Chris inclined his head and his men holstered their weapons and returned to the table. He watched as Eliot's eyes shifted between the members of the ATF team, looking for their weaknesses, figuring out how to take them down if necessary.
Eliot's eyes went flat as they flashed over to meet Chris's gray gaze. Sardonic amusement swirled in those stormy eyes for a moment before Chris glared and something primal peeked out. Blue and gray clashed, but inevitably the blue yielded. For all his ability, something in Eliot backed down, recognizing a fight he could not win.
Nate blinked in surprise and frowned at Chris. Chris said, "Your man's got good instincts. I'll bet he can usually take a group of seven, even armed with guns." At Nate's nod, Chris continued, "There's a big difference between a group of individuals and my men. He won't take us, even if he thinks he's found the right places to hit."
Sophie rolled her eyes, "And the testosterone continues to expand."
"Why is it always 'testosterone' when guys are telling the truth?" Parker asked with a frown.
"It's not about truth or lies," Sophie sighed. "It's the way the truth gets told."
Ezra lifted an eyebrow. "That is most certainly a uniquely feminine perspective on the matter."
"Are we finished here?" Chris asked. He focused on Nate.
"We're done," Nate responded, backing towards the bar. "Enjoy your meal."
Eliot moved slowly, covering his team. Chris watched for a moment, Ezra hovering nearby as the rest of the team looked on in silence. Once the other man had reached his team, Chris glanced at his friend and nodded. Ezra returned to the table with Chris bringing up the rear.
"Well, brothers," Josiah rumbled. "This was an interesting way to shake the doldrums off the conference."
Ezra scoffed. "Please do not remind me. Have you forgotten we are required to attend one more day of that dismal affair?"
Buck gave him a nudge with his elbow. "Hey, maybe you'll take over your session tomorrow."
"No," Chris said, glaring at the undercover agent. "Don't even think about it. I don't need you giving a lecture comparing the work of a con artist to your job."
"Really, Chris," Ezra protested. "I am shocked you think I would stoop so low as to cause such a scene. Mr. Jackson had every right to protest his session's lack of depth. I would merely ask our instructor to-"
"I said no," Chris fumed. He caught a glance passing between the other two imps of the team. He threw a stern look at both of them. "That goes for the both of you too. We just need to get through tomorrow and go home."
Nathan gave a small snicker.
"Something funny, brother?" Josiah asked.
"I think we're confusing the natives," Nathan replied, inclining his head towards the bar where the other group watched in puzzlement.
Josiah smirked. "We confuse people who know us. Complete strangers are unlikely to figure us out."
"As long as they stay over there," Chris broke in, giving the bar a look. Nate gave him a nod but kept his team on the opposite side of the room.
"Hey, Chris." Buck poked Chris in the arm. "I still think you should-"
"No, Buck," he stated firmly. "Stop giving them ideas."
"I didn't do anything-"
Chris fixed a steady gaze on his oldest friend. "Tell me you did not try and plant the idea of causing havoc in their minds?"
"Oh, come on, they won't do anything too bad!"
"It's the 'too bad' that bothers me," Chris answered. He turned his head to the three pranksters of their team. All of them had their heads together, whispering and arguing over some point of contention. He gestured at them. "This is never a good picture."
"What?" Vin asked, blue eyes wide.
Ezra leaned back in his seat. "Indeed. What accusation could you possibly have to throw at us?"
JD stayed quiet, letting the others do the talking. Chris's eyes narrowed in suspicion.
"I don't want a single complaint to follow us to Denver from this conference, you hear me?" he demanded.
"Of course, Chris," Ezra drawled out smoothly. "You won't hear a thing."
JD and Vin began snickering as Buck burst out laughing. Josiah and Nathan hid their smiles as Ezra looked on with innocence only he could manage. Chris shook his head.
"Somebody want to explain to me how I managed to end up with Mischief, Trouble, and Menace all on my team?" he demanded.
"Sure," Buck answered with a nod. "You picked 'em."
The team burst into laughter once more as Chris picked up his whisky with a sigh. "Thanks, Buck."
"No problem, partner."